I knew Bill Novak in the early 1970s, when I was in junior and senior high school, and he was a new member of the Kansas House of Representatives. What I remember most about Bill is his remarkably warm smile and demeanor. If anyone had asked me back then, I’d have said he was nice.
I was surprised to find “nice” popping up Monday in almost every conversation I had about Bill with family and friends, because it seemed too simple, too nondescript.
I knew about his legislative career, his military service in Korea and his passionate lifelong involvement with the American Legion, his love of aviation and his wholesale airplane parts business that took him all around the country. Others could add much more.
Bill Novak lived an extraordinary life while adhering to the ordinary, everyday morals, values, and routines that characterize family life in the Lost Springs and northern Marion County areas he loved. Somehow, nice still seemed too tame.
But perhaps for Bill, nice was a term he preferred, that he would dismiss in humility any greater accolades as too grandiose.
So instead of using nice to define Bill, I set out to use Bill to understand nice.
I discovered a touching note Bill posted to a website in 2003 offering support to families who lost loved ones in the Iraq war, mentioning his eldest son was serving there. A nice note reflecting empathy, compassion, honor, and patriotism. Nice suddenly got bigger.
A strong conservative voice in the legislature who emphasized fiscal responsibility, one of his more controversial proposals was to cut the number of state employees by 10 percent. But Bill structured it so that no one would lose their jobs — the cuts would be made over time through normal attrition. Add that to the expanding definition of nice.
Recently on Facebook, a man posted his fond recollection of a visit he and his father made to the Novak farm in 1984 to see some aviation memorabilia. I wrote to him, and his response made it sound as if he had a very nice visit with a very nice man. The kind of nice that nearly 28 years later turned a one-time meeting with Bill into a vivid, treasured memory he loves re-telling today.
I could share more stories, as I haven’t touched on so many things. But in the past 24 hours, I’ve come to a new understanding and appreciation of nice, thanks to Bill.
I’ve learned that rather than being too small and inconsequential, that little word nice is big enough to encompass all of the adjectives people could rightly ascribe to Bill Novak. Bill was nice. Nice is Bill.
Bill’s life came to a close the way he wanted — in bed in his boyhood home, his beloved wife with him, in the community he loved. How nice, indeed.
And I guess I would’ve been right almost 40 years ago, calling Bill nice. I just wouldn’t have had a clue how right I was.
Now I know, and I must say, it feels nice.